If you work with kids, you know who I'm talking about.
As a Post Adoption Case Manager all the kids on my caseload were "that kid". One day I was called into a school meeting regarding the recent behavior of Brandon. Brandon had been on my caseload for 2 years. He was a bright-smiled, energetic kind boy with a lot of inner turmoil that usually manifested as hyperactivity. The school called a team meeting because they were unsure what to do with Brandon’s escalating, disruptive behavior. They had tried traditional disciplinary action and used the planning room, where he was held accountable and made a plan for future behavior, which only seemed to make the problem worse. I wasn’t surprised by the need for a meeting as this was routine for most children on my case load. I was eager to hear the school’s concerns and possibly give the staff some helpful tools to make Brandon’s time at school more productive for everyone.
Brandon’s adoptive parents, who had taken time off of work, were at the meeting. So were the school principal, Brandon’s teacher and the special education professional. I could feel the frustration in the room. Brandon’s parents sat with their heads down and slumped shoulders. The process of advocating for their child had dulled their conviction that he could be successful in public school. They weren’t sure what the answer was anymore.
“Tell me what’s been going on with Brandon?” I asked with an upbeat affect, trying to balance the energy in the room.
Brandon’s teacher proceeded to explain that his behavior had become more and more disruptive over the last few weeks. She informed me that he had recently destroyed the inside of their classroom bathroom, ripping pictures off the wall, unwrapping feminine products and sticking them to the walls, unrolling all the toilet paper and then clogging the toilet.
“We sent him to the planning room and all he did was lie. He had no remorse and wouldn’t even admit to being the one to cause the damage. It’s tough to make a plan for retribution when a kid won’t even admit what they’ve done!” the principal piped in.
“I sat with him for nearly 4 hours trying to get him to tell me why he did this and he just stared off into space.” the special educator added.
I sympathized with their frustration but even more so with Brandon who had been interrogated for 4 hours. “What was his behavior the morning of the bathroom incident?” I asked.
“Brandon started out the day alright but had difficulty sitting still during our read-aloud session. Several times I had to ask him to be still in his seat while other children were reading. He was fidgeting and squatting on his seat. He just wasn’t listening to my cues. Brandon had asked me for a pencil at the beginning of the day, and I gave him one reminding him it was his job to be prepared. When it was time for his spelling exam, I noticed he was chewing on the collar of his shirt instead of writing. When I went over to him, I could see he had broken the pencil I had given him into tiny pieces. I asked him to clean the mess up, gave him another pencil and asked him to bring in 2 the next day to replace the one he destroyed. That’s when Brandon asked to use the bathroom and proceeded to make a mess in there,” Brandon’s teacher explained.
“OK, great observation,” I remarked. The rest of the team looked at me wondering what in the world I was thinking.
I explained that it seemed like Brandon was dysregulated all day. Because of Brandon’s trauma, he is prone to becoming triggered. Social and learning environments create extra pressure for a child who is trying hard to “be normal.” For reasons we may never be able to pin point, Brandon was struggling that particular day. His increasingly disruptive behaviors were clues to how dysregulated he was feeling inside. Chewing on his collar, bouncing in his chair and breaking the pencil were likely the best coping skills he had to combat some of his anxiety. Asking Brandon to sit still or calm down was an impossible task for him at that moment, which made him feel ashamed and caused his anxiety to spike higher. It isn’t uncommon for a highly dysregulated child to enter a dissociative state or “check out” as a way to separate themselves from mounting pressures. It is possible that Brandon doesn’t even remember defacing the bathroom and it’s not at all surprising that he can’t articulate why he did it.
My suggestion to the team was to intervene at the first sign of dysregulation. “If Brandon often forgets his pencil and is then nervous about asking for one or he starts his day off feeling badly about forgetting something again, why not have pencils specifically for him. It can be written into his education plan that he is to ask his teacher for a pencil in the morning. Whenever Brandon starts fidgeting and can’t sit still, give him a hall pass to go see a pre-determined staff member who can briefly check in with him and then send him back to the classroom. While these interventions might not work magic every time, the point is to address the behavior right from the start as a symptom of underlying trauma and then create a proactive, non-shaming and understanding environment for Brandon.”
Whether working with children, horses or both, becoming attuned to body language is invaluable because it’s hard for them to communicate their feelings and needs. Reading body language and responding appropriately to it promotes safety, sensitivity and empathy and allows you to better understand in frustrating situations.